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The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words
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David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

A number of years ago I spoke at a symposium on prevention science from an evolutionary perspective. The symposium was organized by Tony Biglan, who was then president of the Society for Prevention Research, which is devoted to the prevention of social, physical, and mental health problems. Like so many branches of the basic and applied human behavioral sciences, prevention science was sophisticated in its own way but had developed largely without reference to evolutionary theory. Tony thought that an explicitly evolutionary perspective could add value to Prevention Science and I was there to help him out.

The symposium was attended by two program officers from federal agencies that fund Prevention Science research. At the wrap-up discussion, one of the officers said that although the talks were very interesting, her advice was to avoid using the word “evolution” in grant proposals submitted to her agency. It’s not that the reviewers would be anti-evolution, only that they would find the use of evolution as a theoretical framework sufficiently strange to jeopardize the chances of funding.

I suspect that both Tony and the program officer were right. Tony was right that Prevention Science needs evolutionary theory and the program officer was right that using the E-word might jeopardize chances of funding over the short term. This sets up an ethical dilemma. What should a Prevention Scientist do?

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Take a moment to think about what you would do in this situation. If you’re like me, you might cave to avoid committing professional suicide over the short term, but you would also try to figure out a way to get prevention scientists accustomed to using the E-word over the long term. The idea of Prevention Scientists never adopting evolutionary theory for their field and calling it by its name is not ethically acceptable, insofar as it results in lost lives and increased suffering in people who could have benefitted from an improved Prevention Science.

The E-word wasn’t tainted for Prevention Scientists; it was merely unfamiliar. But the E-word is tainted in other sectors of academic and public life. So are other words such as group selection, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. All of these words had face-value definitions when they were first coined (sociobiology is the study of social behavior from a biological perspective, evolutionary psychology is the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective…) but then they acquired a negative valence for one reason or another, leading to an ethical dilemma similar to the one that I have outlined for Prevention Science.

I would like to argue that in all cases, it is important to rescue tainted words by restoring their face value definitions. If they have acquired negative valences, it is important to understand why. Past confusions and injustices need to be resolved and avoided in the future. Rescuing tainted words might be hard work and perhaps their use must be avoided on occasion to avoid excessive short-term costs, but permanently avoiding tainted words and coining new terms with the same face value definitions is not ethically acceptable.

Before considering scientific tainted words, let’s do an ethical warm-up with family names. Suppose that your father is accused of committing a heinous crime. His name has been thoroughly tainted and so has yours by association. What should you do? One option is to try to clear your father’s name. Another is to keep your name even though you will suffer by association. A third option is to change your name to conceal the fact that he is your father.

Let’s say that your father is in fact innocent of the crime. In this case, there is a moral imperative to clear his name. Allowing him to hang and changing your name would be despicable. Now let’s say that your father is in fact guilty of the crime. Falsely clearing his name becomes immoral, keeping your name is morally praiseworthy, and changing your name is a bit cowardly but understandable. This is how our moral intuitions tally costs and benefits to self, others, and society as a whole.

What are the costs of permanently avoiding scientific tainted words? The costs of avoiding the E-word for the field of Prevention Science can be measured in human suffering and loss of life, which is the typical currency of ethical arguments. The costs of avoiding terms such as “group selection”, “sociobiology”, and “evolutionary psychology” in academic discourse are less dire, but they are still tangible. Moreover, if we accept the argument that basic science and scholarship leads to practical applications over the long term, then sowing confusion inside the Ivory Tower can lead to suffering and death down the road.

Regardless of life and death consequences, scientists and scholars have strong norms about adhering to the truth, keeping careful track of the history of ideas, and properly crediting people for their contributions. Transgressions include making stuff up, stealing someone else’s experiment, and claiming that an idea is original when it was previously published by someone else. These transgressions are always considered unethical and sometimes are punished severely, such as the dismissal of Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser on the basis of falsifying data. Other transgressions go unpunished, as for any moral system, and there are worrisome trends such as a general failure to responsibly cite the literature and under-citing research by women. Science and scholarship can become degraded as a cultural system and cease to produce the public good that is intended, just like an economic or political cultural system can become degraded.

Avoiding tainted words and coining new words with the same face-value meanings isn’t quite the same as failing to credit people for their ideas, but it can come close. Suppose that an idea developed by person X is rejected by the scientific community. Later it emerges that person X was right. Rather than properly crediting person X, however, person Y packages the idea under a new name and gets the credit, while person X goes down in history as a benighted fool. How is this ethically different than failing to clear your innocent father’s name or stealing someone’s experiment?

Even apart from who gets credit for what, imagine the irritation of a future historian who is trying to keep track of the history of ideas and discovers through painstaking scholarship that some terms fall into disuse and other equivalent terms come into use just because people weren’t courageous enough to call a spade a spade. Keeping track of the history of ideas is difficult enough without this kind of linguistic noise.

We are already suffering from this kind of noise. Biologists who study social behavior but don’t want to call it sociobiology. Evolutionists who study psychology but don’t want to call it evolutionary psychology. Evolutionists who invoke group selection in every way except using the term.

“Social Darwinism” is perhaps the most important example of a term that became tainted and needs to be rescued. From the very beginning, it was used as a pejorative to brand laissez faire policies that Darwin did not endorse. Ever since, it has given the impression that evolutionary theory is somehow more dangerous than other theoretical frameworks in the formulation of public policy. Not only is this conceptually and historically false, but it has retarded the use of evolutionary theory to understand and improve the human condition for decades.

TVOL has already worked to restore the face value definition of Evolutionary Psychology with its series of articles on the theme “What is Evolutionary Psychology?”. Now it will attempt to do the same for Social Darwinism with its newly launched theme “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism.” Our aim is to create a wider audience for the careful scholarship that already exists and dispel the shadow that hangs over evolutionary theory in relation to human affairs. It is time to clear Darwin’s good name.

Articles in this series:

Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism. David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson

The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words. David Sloan Wilson

Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality. Paul Crook

Social Darwinism: A Case of Designed Ventriloquism. Adriana Novoa

When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: An Interview with William Muir. David Sloan Wilson

Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! Robert J. Richards and David Sloan Wilson

Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An interview with Trevor Pearce. David Sloan Wilson

Why Did Sociology Declare Independence from Biology (And Can They Be Reunited)? An Interview with Russell Schutt. David Sloan Wilson

Toward a New Social Darwinism. David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson


Join the discussion


  1. Margaret Palmer says:

    Very effective essay that I quite agree with. It also reflects to me a related problem that I see increasing over time. Rather than ignoring a theory or concept (like evolunitary processes), the analogous problem I raise is the co-optation of a theory, idea, or construct for uses other than its intended meaning . “Restoration” is now being used to refer to engineered mitigation projects, to negotiations for offsets, and other activities that may have little resemblance to recovering ecological structures (including species) and processes that are of value in supporting earth and sustaining its people.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Dear Margaret,
      Your observation about co-opting is interesting. This kind transfer takes place all the time and is woven into the fabric of symbolic thought. Any metaphor transfers a set of meanings from one domain to another. It’s only objectionable in certain contexts.

  2. Joseph Gilbert says:

    I would like to share my findings pertaining to how spoken-word language generates human culture and hence, informs human behavior. Please contact me at 805-646-7686 and/or my email address.

  3. Doug Jones says:

    What about “race”? Or should we just talk about “populations” or “continent-scale genetic clusters” or something? What about “instinct”? Or should we just talk about “Darwinian algorithms”?

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Race is a good example of a word that requires careful unpacking. Joseph Graves, the first African American to earn a PhD in evolutionary biology who also serves on the EI Board of Directors, writes intelligently on this subject. Yes there this lots of local genetic adaptation in the human species, but no it doesn’t map onto the social construction of races. Both need to be understood in detail.

  4. Mark Sloan says:

    As part of the “Rescuing Tainted Words” effort, “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” (see link to sounds like a great project. Also, I sympathize with the goal of clearing Darwin’s name from the implied false accusations that he advocated anything like Social Darwinism or even that his work supports a rational version of Social Darwinism.

    But might there be alternatives to attempting to redefine such a well-established term as Social Darwinism – a task which seems impossible? Perhaps we could find another way to address the wrong done Darwin.

    A new term, “Darwinian Morality”, could refer to moral principles derived from the modern understanding of the evolutionary origins and function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes. The term memorably refers to morality’s evolutionary origins. Also, this modern science is consistent with Darwin’s remarkably prescient insights into the origins and function of unselfish pro-social behaviors – the core of moral behaviors. These two reasons seem adequate to justify a “Darwinian Morality” label.

    Thus, all those seeking to understand our moral sense and past and present moral codes from an evolutionary perspective would be presented with two ideas: Social Darwinism and Darwinian Morality.

    “Social Darwinism” memorably contains two wrong ideas. First, it correctly describes the intellectual error of claiming what morally ‘ought’ to be should be based on what evolutionary processes ‘are’. (This is an important error. If we did not already have this term for it, we would need to invent one to help avoid future similar errors.) Second, the name Social Darwinism incorrectly implies Darwin’s support for the idea.

    “Darwinian Morality” refers, again in memorable fashion, to the evolutionary origins of our moral sense and moral codes. As part of science, which is about what ‘is’, the only kind of oughts that can be rationally derived from this knowledge are instrumental oughts. Instrumental oughts have the form “If you desire the ultimate goal X (for example well-being for all), then science Y (evolutionary science) tells you that you ‘ought’ (instrumental) to do Z (use these moral principles as the basis for moral codes).” No magical leaps from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ required as for advocates of Social Darwinism.

    As a snapshot in time example of such evolution based “moral principles”, the present developing state of science about our moral sense and moral codes appears consistent with two moral principles. First, underlying all behaviors motivated by our moral sense or advocated by past and present moral codes, “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation are descriptively moral”. Second, describing the universal subset of those descriptively moral behaviors, “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploitation are universally moral”. This discrimination between behaviors that are only descriptively moral (considered moral only within a society) and universally moral (cross-culturally universal) should be culturally useful in rationally resolving moral disputes.

    If cultural utility in improving the human condition is our goal, perhaps it is time for a new term, Darwinian Morality.

    • Chris Kavanagh says:

      I’m going to echo Mark Sloan’s comments and re-emphasise my hesitation that this initiative has the potential to provide ammunition for those who seek to undermine the teaching of evolution in the US (and potentially further afield).

      For decades now creationists and intelligent design advocates have attempted to paint support for evolution as entailing an endorsement of social darwinism and now, regardless of lofty and reasonable motivations, a well known evolutionary theorist is going to attempt to ‘rescue’ and promote a NEW social darwinism. I strongly suspect this effort could prove counterproductive and is extremely unlikely to result in the general public or academics more broadly in agreeing to redefine a word that already has an established definition. That Darwin did not endorse most of the theories labelled ‘social darwinism’ is a valid point but if the goal is to avoid confusion (including for future historians) then I don’t see how creating a completely new competing definition with the same label will lead to greater clarity. Everyone who wants to endorse NEW social darwinism will end up being obligated to explain that in doing so they are not actually endorsing OLD social darwinism…

      • David Sloan Wilson says:

        Both of you make good points and I have to confess that the word Darwinism itself is problematic. Darwin didn’t get everything right and was especially culture-bound on topics such as the inferiority of women and some cultures compared to others. It has to be made clear that “Darwinism” stands for “modern evolutionary theory”.

  5. Glenn Geher says:

    David, thank you for this very-important little essay. As you might guess, I could not agree with you more. The fact the “e” word is somehow tainted within the world of academia is downright depressing. And, as you point out, terms connected with applications of evolution to the human condition (“social Darwinism”; “evolutionary psychology”; and that most evil of evils “sociobiology”) often get tainted within the academy. This is, of course, a shame as evolutionary principles provide a uniquely powerful set of tools to help us understand who we are. Thanks for your great work – keep it up!

  6. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments so far on this important topic. One goal of This View of Life, which applies to the whole magazine in addition to the “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism” theme, is to expand scholarly norms of truth-telling more widely into public discourse. A scholar who wantonly makes stuff up gets called out–and the same should be true for anyone writing for the public. It might seem naive to expect a widespread shift in norms to be possible, but it happens all the time in other contexts (e.g., gay marriage) and can happen for truth telling. What it takes is altruistic punishment–the willingness to call someone out, even at some personal cost. The more people get called out for wantonly making stuff up, the more the norm gets established.

    Rescuing a tainted word provides an opportunity to establish truth telling norms because it requires a review of what actually happened to create the stigma. Take the question of whether Nazi war policy drew upon evolutionary theory. There is ample scholarly evidence that it didn’t. If someone writing for the public says otherwise, they are wantonly making stuff up and need to be called out. Work is required but that is always true for altruistic punishment. To avoid the fight is to let the fabricators win.

    • Helga Vieirch says:

      You offer a great insight into how words get tainted and how much damage this does… and you also show that not giving credit for important contributions is wrong in your example. But I wonder if we can address another series problem, one that has caused great pain, bewilderment, and even led to animosity. I am referring to the widespread tainting, and even vilification, of anthropologists, done by evolutionary biologists, psychologists and socio-biologists writing about human evolution. It is commonplace for work by anthropologists, particularly those studying culture and the process of cultural evolution, to be dismissed out of hand as “social constructionists”, “blank slaters” or even “people who think evolution stopped at the neck”. I have been an anthropologist for 35 years, trained in all four subfields (biological, cultural, lingua tics, archaeology) and I never even heard such ideas until I read and heard about these terms. I have astonished to see references, of late, to undertakings in the study of “cultural evolution” which imply that this was initiated by E.O. Wilson!
      I am dumbfounded by this. I have read Wilson’s books, including the “Social Conquest..” and was stunned by the errors and sheer lack of proper scholarship shown in his presentation of models of human evolution. There appears to be a general vilification of 150 years of work done by thousands of anthropologists working on human fossils, in human cultures, studying human languages, and excavating and analyzing remains of past human cultural activity. I have even heard Richard Dawkins announce that Chagnon was the only anthropologist to use the scientific method and to work within an evolutionary paradigm. This might be a statement made out of ignorance, but if so, he should have done some fact checking before making any such public announcements. I had always had great respect for him until that moment.

      The study of cultural evolution is a huge undertaking, and it needs input from anyone willing to contribute, but to co-opt the whole subject without acknowledgment to hundreds of others who have already made it their life’s work, to ignore – or worse, to malign the motivation of people who have done previous work on this issue, is just going to create an totally unnecessary pain, and probably hostility between people.

      • Helga Vieirch says:

        Oh, sorry.. I left a sentence incomplete.

        That should have read “I have been an anthropologist for 35 years, trained in all four subfields (biological, cultural, lingua tics, archaeology) and I never even heard such ideas until I read and heard about these terms UNITL the last few years when i saw them on forums like this one, used by evolutionary biologists and/or evolutonary psychologists.

  7. […] “Social Darwinism” has been pejorative from the beginning. David Sloan Wilson has a short piece here talking about the […]

  8. Gregory Laden says:

    All due respect to my honored colleague David Sloan Wilson, I see a problem here. Evol Pych, to take an example, was not originally the application of evolutionary theory to psychology. Well, yes it was, broadly, but very early on in the process, really right at the beginning (and I was right there watching this happen) there was created a manifesto of what EP meant, and it was a very explicitly defined set of ideas, some first principles (generally very good ideas, most borrowed from earlier psychology such as the EEA), but others were fairly narrowly defined hypotheses that could be tested as part of an evolutionary approach to psych. But these hypotheses became right away, were developed right away, as central to the concept of EP. You took the hypotheses at face value and you are an EPologist. Otherwise you called yourself a Darwinian Psychologist or something else.

    Going to the face value definition is good. But let us not pretend that the “face value” definition is the ORIGINAL definition. That would simply be wrong for EP. Probably for some of these other terms as well.

  9. Nathaniel Comfort says:

    How about another e-word: “eugenics”?
    There are those who are trying to rescue something like its “face value” meaning today, using modern genomic methods. Often it goes by the name “individual” or “liberal” eugenics. Eugenics is acceptable, they say, if there is no state control–if it is done via individual choice. (I have argued that choice is complicated and that individual eugenics is still eugenics.)
    Are we to “rescue” this word as well?

  10. John Strate says:

    If there are people who find the use of tainted words annoying, it’s their problem. Another word to add to the list of tainted words is sex. The misuse and overuse of gender is both astonishing and tiresome.

  11. David Milgrim says:

    Thanks for the essay.

    I am still shocked at the underlying resistance toward an evolutionary point of view in all studies. I recently read the Blank Slate and found it hard to believe there was enough resistance 15 or so years ago for SP to even want to write such a book. I had hoped that was a thing of the past.

    I have some guesses as to the underlying causes of such resistance, but wonder what others think. I personally am not emotionally attached to evolution by natural selection. In fact, I imagine I’d rather believe that a god is watching out for me. But I’d have to turn a blind eye to the towers of obvious and technical data that suggests otherwise. Are others still hanging on to this important but antiquated idea of a higher power operating at the level of human creation? Or is it simply too hard for some to pair the mystery of conscious experience with the random processes of biological replicators?

    It’s depressing and disheartening to be sure. But why is it this way?

    Thanks again.

    • Joe says:

      I just couldn’t disagree more. “Rescuing” terms obfuscates the history of bad ideas. Social Darwinism, the idea that some races and their way of life are more evolved, and then using that as a basis for justifying, coersion, wholesale manipulation of cultures, and ultimately genocide, is a bad idea. We should preserve the label as a signpost of why certain ideas are dangerous and ought to be tred carefully by.

      • Joe says:

        I’m sorry, I meant this to be a reply to the article, not your comment, David. I’m replying on a small screen. All the best.

  12. Joseph Mauriello says:

    I just couldn’t disagree more. “Rescuing” terms obfuscates the history of bad ideas. Social Darwinism, the idea that some races and their way of life are more evolved, and then using that as a basis for justifying, coersion, wholesale manipulation of cultures, and ultimately genocide, is a bad idea. We should preserve the label as a signpost of why certain ideas are dangerous and ought to be tred carefully by.